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A lie sent Georgia soldiers to prison for 25 years. Will lawmakers help them?

Jim McCloskey, left, of Centurion Ministries with Kenneth Gardiner, Dominic Lucci and Mark Jones.

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By JOSHUA SHARPE | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution | Published: March 3, 2020

(Tribune News Service) — When the old soldiers walked free, they knew it wasn’t the end.

Their minds were ravaged from 25 years in prison — from fist fights and longing, from the torment of waking up every day to the realization that they might die before anyone believed they were innocent.

The three U.S. Army veterans felt happy — euphoric — when their convictions were overturned and they left prison in December 2017. But they said they had no money, no prospects and no idea how they could ever really recover.

Before everything fell apart in 1992, Mark Jones, Kenny Gardiner and Dominic Lucci were best friends who were barely in their 20s. They met playing fantasy games like Dungeons and Dragons at Fort Stewart. They never got into trouble. Then prosecutors painted the trio, who are white, as racists who shot a black man at random in Savannah just for the thrill of killing. Two decades later, the case against them crumbled when a nonprofit helped expose the one big lie that had led to their murder convictions.

This year, the former soldiers hope the Georgia General Assembly will agree to compensate them. They had the same hope during the 2019 legislative session but saw the compensation measure die. Now state Rep. J. Craig Gordon, D-Savannah, has taken up their cause. As is typical in Georgia cases, Gordon submitted a bill laying out the compensation amount and terms for each former inmate. Gordon’s trio of bills for the old soldiers say that the state of Georgia would pay each man $3 million — the amount an economist calculated they would have made if they’d stayed in the military through retirement. The money would be paid out over 20 years, as is typical in such cases.

Gordon said the evidence makes it clear the soldiers were wrongfully convicted. “We know money is not going to make up for an hour, much less the 25 years they lost,” Gordon said. But he said he knows cash could help.

The bills have early bipartisan support, but no guarantee of passing.

Gardiner, who lives in a RV barely bigger than a prison cell, wonders if legislators — or anyone else — can ever understand what he and his friends lost.

“I’ve lost basically my entire adult life,” he said. “Think of what you did between 22 and however old you are now.”

After their release from prison, the trio spoke with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution over the course of nearly a year, allowing the paper to observe the hurdles they faced while trying to salvage their lives.

Their story is a cold reminder of the trauma imprisonment inflicts. It doesn’t stop when the gates open and an inmate walks free — even if the system acknowledges he shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

***

Mark Jones, a 20-year-old gregarious Desert Storm veteran from Texas, believed in the criminal justice system — until the last day of the trial. That was when the pain really started. Jones, like his co-defendants, knew that sometimes the wrong people got arrested, but he thought juries, the ultimate triers of fact, righted wrongs. In this case, he felt positive the jury would quickly acquit.

Jones, Gardiner and Lucci had driven to Savannah on Jan. 31, 1992, for a bachelor party. Jones was to marry the next day. The plan for the bachelor party was to go to a strip club. But the prosecution claimed the men had one other idea for the party: to kill a black man at random because of racist blood lust fueled by games like Dungeons and Dragons. (Lead prosecutor David Lock, who is now in private practice, declined in an interview to say whether he still believed the soldiers were guilty, because he chooses not to offer an opinion on any defendant’s guilt or innocence. “We followed the evidence,” he added.)

The prosecution had no physical evidence, no murder weapon. But the lone witness to the shooting said he saw the soldiers gun down Stanley Jackson, a 35-year-old former Marine, as Jackson walked down the street.

Before the shooting, Savannah had been besieged by violence, largely due to the tactics of the murderous crack-pushing Jivens gang that terrorized predominantly black neighborhoods. Many homicides lingered unsolved, leading to vigils and protests. Residents accused the police of not taking crimes against black people seriously enough. It was like discussions playing out across the country, especially in the wake of the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles, which led to riots when the baton-swinging officers were acquitted seven months before the soldiers’ trial.

The defense attorneys felt sure the pressure led to a tragic rush to judgment against a few out-of-towners who unwittingly walked into the controversy, and they told the jury as much.

“Politics has nothing to do with this,” prosecutor Lock said in his closing argument. He said the defendants were “thrill-seekers” with a “sick, demented way of seeking a thrill.”

One of the defense attorneys, James Watts Sr., pointed out that to travel from the rehearsal dinner in Hinesville to the crime scene in time to kill Jackson, the soldiers would’ve had to have been driving 116 mph the entire 40 miles — with no one noticing. Watts said the state’s case was a “fantasy.”

When the jury announced the guilty verdicts, Jones wanted to fall to the floor and wallow in his tears. He would have if he wasn’t afraid of disgracing his dress blues. Jones knew the eyewitness testimony had sunk him and his friends. He also knew the eyewitness had lied.

But why would the Rev. James White Jr. lie?

***

Dominic Lucci, 21, grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, trying to stay out of fistfights. His turbulent neighborhood taught him to trust only people who earned it and to be ready for conflict. This would be helpful where he was going. Jones and Gardiner were headed to different prisons.

On Lucci’s first day at Valdosta State Prison, he said, a group of three men called him a racist murderer and lunged toward him.

Lucci knew what to do: He ran. The strategy saved him, that time.

The thing that bothered Lucci most about prison — besides being there — was what he saw as the constant indignity. For instance, if one man got caught with contraband, guards would tear apart everyone’s bunk — the only tiny spot in the whole world that was supposed to be yours.

Most of the inmates were good people who’d simply made mistakes, Lucci found. Others wanted to steal from you, trick you, fight you.

The stress of navigating it all would eventually spike Lucci’s blood pressure so high he thought he might die at any moment.

***

Kenny Gardiner, 22, who grew up chasing rattlesnakes on a farm in east Texas and also served in Desert Storm, tried not to worry too much with time. The weight of time — what’s passed and what’s left — can bury you in prison. Gardiner and his friends had life sentences, which meant they would die in prison unless they got parole, which felt like a long shot.

One day in his dorm, Gardiner realized he’d become too good at shunning time. He thought for a while and finally had to pull out a watch that had the date listed to get an answer: 1995. And how old was he?

He couldn’t remember.

Something started to unravel in his mind. Gardiner hadn’t really been thinking. Over the course of probably a few months, he had only thought of exactly what he was doing at any given moment — eating, walking, showering. No thinking back. No thinking forward.

The realization that he’d been in this state — almost catatonic — scared Gardiner. He’d seen other inmates who were mentally ill and drugged-out, shuffling dead-eyed through the dorms.

What if he ended up like them?

***

Here came a fist.

It belonged to a man who, like plenty of men before him, wanted to fight Jones because he’d been convicted, essentially, of killing a black man for the fun of it. Jones didn’t mind fighting. His anger was raw and pure.

The fist struck Jones’ mouth. Blood streamed from his lips. Jones could tell he would lose. But what did he really have to lose?

His life was sweet before. He was hours from getting married to a woman he adored. Then he and his buddies couldn’t find the strip club, so they asked a cop outside a police station for directions. The cop happened to be walking White, the murder witness, inside for an interview, and the pastor happened to say their little black car looked like the killers’ car. Officers soon found the soldiers in the club and had White, a black 33-year-old part-time minister and bus driver, look at them, White said. White said he didn’t recognize them as the shooters. But weeks later, White testified in a preliminary hearing that, actually, yes, Jones and his friends were the murderers.

A few weeks after arriving at prison, Jones told his fiancée, who didn’t intend to leave him, that he wanted nothing to do with her. He cursed her out. He meant none of it, but he’d rather she hated him than waste her life married to a prisoner. They broke up.

So now here was Jones, getting pummeled up and down the cell block for five minutes, 10 minutes, blood drenching him. Here he was enjoying it.

***

One of the trial defense attorneys, John Watts Jr., resolved to handle the appeals. He collected troubling affidavits from jurors who said they went against their better judgment in the verdict. “I believed that the pretrial publicity and the continued media coverage during the trial would have resulted in race related riots if the defendants were acquitted,” one juror wrote, adding that the Rodney King unrest came up during the 11-hour deliberations.

Several other jurors also said fear of riots influenced their decision.

But the appeal failed. There was still White’s damning testimony, as well as a fellow soldier who claimed Jones told her he planned to kill a black man in Savannah. The defense felt sure she was lying, because the evidence showed that Jones wasn’t at the base when she said they talked and police records showed that she told drastically different versions of the story to different people.

But White was so firm in his testimony, so clear that he saw the soldiers kill the man.

Watts looked over White’s first statement after the shooting, when he’d said the killers were white or light-skinned black men. But the spot where the shooters stopped their car to unload clips on the victim was lit by a streetlight with a yellow tint. The defense had expert testimony suggesting that the yellow would have made it difficult to know the race of a person beneath it — especially if the person was 50 yards away, as White said the shooters had been.

Under those circumstances, the reverend probably wouldn’t have known the killers if they were sitting in the front row on Sunday morning.

***

Inmates are flies in a jar. They can see life on the outside but can’t interact. Gardiner’s grandmother died, and he never got to say goodbye. Jones’ dad died, and he didn’t even hear the cause. Gardiner’s dad fell to cancer. Gardiner went to the shower and let the water run over his body so no one could see his tears.

For Jones, his father’s death was a terrible blow that reminded him of the life he’d left on Port Aransas, the colorful island town where he grew up on the Gulf of Mexico but was far from him now. Growing up, Jones swam constantly. He loved to watch cargo ships pass, because dolphins would race up to the bow and dive in and out of the waves, like dancers.

In his bunk, Jones dreamed he was back home, swimming free. There’s no swimming in prison. Other times, he dreamed he was back in Iraq, walking through the wreckage of a recent battle, seeing the bodies of men who burned alive, their mouths frozen wide open, like they were screaming for help.

His father’s death was also a needed jolt. Jones decided he wanted to live, which meant he had to stop gleefully jumping into fights.

Jones also needed to find a way to convince the inmates who wanted to fight a racist murderer that he wasn’t one. So one day, Jones said, he grabbed some documents he had from his case and went to see an inmate gang leader, whose opinion carried weight in the prison.

Jones asked the man to read the papers. After the man finished, he looked at Jones and said, You guys got screwed.

***

Lucci was lucky enough to have a girlfriend who stayed with him after he went to prison. She sat at home watching as much Court TV as she could, trying to learn more about the criminal justice system so that she could find a way to help.

That’s how she heard the name of Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey nonprofit that worked to free wrongfully convicted inmates.

The group turned Lucci down the first time he asked for help in 2000. A couple of years later, he got angry and wrote another letter. His health was declining, his blood pressure rising.

Centurion Ministries founder Jim McCloskey, who found his purpose after meeting a wrongfully convicted inmate while in seminary, said he opened the letter and found Lucci’s audacity charming. Lucci had written not a request, but a demand: get down here and help us.

McCloskey’s group juggled other cases while slowly collecting documents in the soldiers’ case.

Finally in 2009, McCloskey flew to Atlanta and drove to Newnan, where he believed White had moved. McCloskey knocked on doors for two weeks asking relatives if they knew where the reverend was. McCloskey found White and his wife in a Super 8 outside Newnan.

How them boys doing? White asked.

They’re doing better than their parents are, McCloskey said.

White broke down crying. McCloskey thought White might have more to say. But it didn’t feel right to press yet. A few months later, the Whites agreed to lunch with him at Olive Garden.

Yes, White told McCloskey, I lied.

It had haunted him for nearly 20 years, made him feel unworthy of serving as a preacher. He imagined what the congregation would think if they knew who he really was.

The stress overwhelmed White. Two strokes. Two heart attacks. A bitter strain in his marriage, because Suzette had urged him not to lie.

Why did he?

White explained to McCloskey, and later in a sworn affidavit.

People, including a fellow minister, called encouraging White to do “the right thing,” which White took to mean identify the soldiers as the shooters. Police told White there would be riots if the soldiers weren’t convicted. But White was dogged by guilt and told a prosecutor at the district attorney’s office he wouldn’t identify the soldiers in the trial. The prosecutor, whose name White says he doesn’t remember, said that if the minister was saying he didn’t recognize the soldiers, then that meant he had lied under oath at the preliminary hearing.

The prosecutor said he could charge White with perjury. (The prosecution and police have denied White’s claims that they pressured him.) White was terrified for his eight kids if he went to prison.

When the inmates learned why White lied, they were in their 40s and had already spent half their lives in prison. They decided they understood that the reverend had been in a terrible position.

They did not hate him.

***

The other break the soldiers got was an old police report discovered in the files of the Savannah Police Department. It had never been handed over to the defense.

The report, obtained through an open records request by Centurion Ministries, was written early on the morning after the murder. A man flagged down a Savannah police officer at a housing project and said a few white men had just been in the area threatening to kill random black people. This had happened several hours after the soldiers had been taken into custody.

For six years, filings by Centurion Ministries crawled through various courts while the inmates tried to remain hopeful.

They’d waited so long, tried so hard to make do and accept their surroundings, the disappointments, the indignities. It made them so grateful for small moments when they could forget their plight. Fantasy games and books helped them feel like they were somewhere else.

The strangest thing could make them feel better.

One of Gardiner’s prized possessions was a plastic fast-food spoon he’d found in a guard’s trash one day. The spoons you got in the cafeteria were terrible flimsy things. This one didn’t bend too much or snap when Gardiner stirred soup in his cell.

One day at Jones’ prison, a hard rain brought a waist-deep flash flood to the yard. Jones felt an urge.

He stripped to his shorts and dove in the water.

Guards hollered after him, demanding to know what he was doing.

I’m swimming!

***

In a unanimous decision in November 2017, the Georgia Supreme Court vacated the convictions and ordered a new trial. The justices said the discovery of the police report led to the decision, because it could have changed the verdict.

A Savannah judge allowed their release on bond on Dec. 20, 2017, and they emerged from the Chatham County jail to cheering Centurion Ministries staffers and relatives. A year later, the district attorney’s office would announce it was dropping all charges.

It remains unclear who killed Stanley Jackson. The “chief enforcer” of the Jivens gang told McCloskey that “everyone” knew who killed Jackson, and that it wasn’t the soldiers, but McCloskey said the man wouldn’t tell him who did it. The enforcer has since died in prison. The imprisoned former leader of the gang, Ricky Jivens, didn’t respond to letters from the AJC.

When the soldiers left prison, White felt a mighty weight lift. His wife had died in 2012, but he was glad she saw him working to right the wrong before then. White also met the soldiers. “It was awesome,” White, who still preaches, said in an interview.

Lucci went back to Ohio where his dad lives, and started a ritual of putting in job applications, hoping no one noticed the 25-year gap on his resume and then assuming they did notice when he didn’t get a call back.

Jones went to Port Aransas, dove into the Gulf. He watched the dolphins. He landed a job cleaning vacation rental homes. He worked seven days a week to afford the rent on his small camper at a small RV park where his mom lived.

Gardiner went back to east Texas and felt like a stranger to his family and afraid of what would happen if a real stranger asked about his past. His mom let him move into a secluded house she owned out in the piney woods, near a lake, where he could just be alone. He clacked away on a computer keyboard, drudging through role-playing games.

He also couldn’t get a job interview.

In June 2019, Jones got Gardiner on with the house cleaning company, and Gardiner moved into an RV next to Jones. They knew the General Assembly wasn’t compensating them that year. They worked constantly.

***

One gorgeous day in July, Jones and Gardiner pulled up to a vacation rental in Port Aransas and hauled their cleaning gear through the front door.

The foyer beamed with seafoam green walls and a sign: “Life’s a beach, enjoy the waves.” This sign was intended for people who pose for photos inside the 20-foot-tall shark’s mouth on Alister Street — not for guys like Jones and Gardiner.

The pair split up, working as quickly as they could because this was supposed to be almost a day off: cleaning just one three-story house. A normal day would be two or three or four rentals with a lunch of gas station hot dogs choked down on the drive from one house to the next.

For a long time at the rental, the only sound was the washing machine and Gardiner scrubbing a stone bathroom counter. Gardiner ran a mental checklist of everything he had to do: sweep, mop, scrub the kitchen, scrub the bathrooms, check under the beds. No thinking back. No thinking forward.

But Gardiner started thinking about money, trying not to think too much about the fact that he could have retired from the Army in 2018 if his life hadn’t exploded.

Later, in his RV, Gardiner felt a tear run down his cheek while thinking about his mom, fearing she won’t be around much longer because she’s getting older and concerned about her health. The tear was acid to his cheek. He slapped it off, doubled over and put his head in his hands. Sunlight from the little window on the door lit his body, as he pulled heavy breaths.

He confessed he’d held in his emotions since 1992. Now he felt terrified of what would happen if they all came out.

***

They had a few minutes to kill and wanted to see the dolphins. Jones drove along the shore, passing bathers on the beach, and parked near a seawall.

A couple of tourists asked for directions to a science center. Jones pointed the way. But first, maybe the tourists wanted to see something. A cargo ship was passing.

“Hey,” Jones called out to the man and woman, “watch the bow of the ship. Watch!”

A handful of dolphins appeared, splashing in the water the ship kicked up.

“Oh, yeah!” the woman said. “Oh, my goodness.”

Gardiner watched the show too, grinning.

After a few minutes, the couple thanked the strangers and drove away, never knowing where the men had been or how much it meant to them to be there, watching dolphins dance in the waves.

©2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)
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